Regina King’s feature directorial debut brings together four greats for one legendary night.
Ever wonder what it would’ve felt like to be a fly on the wall for history’s greatest moments?
One Night in Miami captures that with it’s backdrop of real-life events and fictional dialogue, building a conversation that’s just surface-scratching.
The film shifts into gear with the Feb. 1964 title fight between Cassius Clay, later known as Muhammad Ali, (Eli Goree) and Sonny Liston in Miami. The country’s watching, but so are some fellow friends/talents: Malcom X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge).
After Clay wins the fight, they converge at Malcom’s hotel room. They’re expecting a celebration, but get a grounded comedown that brings up recent experiences of racial injustice and how these moments bond or separate them.
Because it’s based on the stage play, the other character in One Night in Miami happens to be the hotel room the men are shuttered in. Its a means to hide away from the press, but an end to self discovery about what it means to be black in America in the 60s (especially when you’re successful).
And thanks to King’s direction and original playwright Kemp Powers’ involvement in the script, we don’t feel like we’re watching a play being filmed, like Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom for instance. The dialogue moves the story and the characters themselves are interesting enough to pull us in. The setting is an afterthought.
Because they’re confined together, opinions come out unfiltered.
The main friction comes between Malcolm and Cooke. Malcolm questions the soul singer’s artistic integrity and his responsibility to address the issues plaguing African Americans instead of trying to pander to a white audience.
But how do you retain control of your voice and still boast commercial appeal?
It’s one of the great talking points of the film that counters the difference between what’s popular and what’s poignant, and is meant to inspire the message of one of Cooke’s most moving songs.
These issues affect the men on a personal and public level; most visibly Clay who is preparing to join the Nation of Islam, and will adopt a new name that will alienate him professionally, and damage his national appeal.
While he’s leading Clay into this new life, Malcolm is balancing the ramifications of leaving the Nation and how his family and faith will be affected. His life has already gotten too dangerous at this point, with suspicious white men tracking his every move.
Brown is a mediator to the dueling parties and takes their viewpoints to heart. He’s also doubting whether he should continue his career in the NFL or leave to become an actor, even if it will present further hurtles.
These crossroad decisions bring the men together through laughs, tears, and some much-needed introspection.
What One Night in Miami is ultimately questioning is what it’s like to be “young, black, famous, righteous, and unapologetic” in America. You need power to have control of your narrative, but that’s defined by what you see as being free.
Goree’s Clay views power as “a world where we’re safe to be ourselves.”
Mountains had to be moved to meet that basis human right in 1964. Acceptance shouldn’t require that much heavy-lifting.